In Other Words
The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation by Miriam Pawel
by Miriam Pawel, Bloomsbury, 469 pages
If Gov. Edmund Gerald “Jerry” Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) were considering a fourth presidential bid, Miriam Pawel set the scene for him in her lavishly researched epic, The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation. Now that Brown is eighty years old, however, such a run is unlikely. But it is a tribute to his fresh and lasting progressivism that we still think of him as an up-and-comer. Just recently, “Governor Moonbeam,” as Chicago columnist Mike Royko dubbed him in the 1970s for his far-out ideas, vowed that his state would be running on 100-percent renewable energy by 2045.
Jerry’s rise to power was alternately predictable and preposterous. Son of Edmund Gerald “Pat” Brown Sr., California’s governor from 1959 to 1967, Jerry has eclipsed his father’s short-lived political career. He became one of the state’s youngest governors in 1975, at the age of thirty-seven. He was elected three decades later in 2010 as the oldest governor of the state. In the interim, he ran unsuccessfully three times for president (1976, 1980, 1992), was defeated for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982, and then re-emerged as mayor of Oakland from 1999-2007.
While Jerry is the protagonist in Pawel’s family saga, his story is inextricable from that of his father, who led the Golden State during a stretch of unparalleled growth and expansion at a pivotal moment in American history. An affable good ol’ boy in the Democratic Party mold of the day, Pat Brown was warm and genuine with an infectious belly laugh, though neither dynamic nor a skillful orator. “Pat is just not a whip-cracker at heart, and people know it and like him for it,” one of his closest friends put it. During the 1960 Democratic National Convention, the Kennedys thought Brown bungled JFK’s nomination. They disliked him for his lack of leadership and fealty to a political machine. “The Kennedys were everything Pat Brown was not: polished, glamorous, wealthy, Harvardeducated, and ruthless,” Pawel writes.
Brown Sr. was tone-deaf about the crucial matters of the day. When the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted in 1965, he appointed John McCone, a reactionary former director of the CIA, to lead an investigatory panel into the violence. Accused of glossing over the racial and economic plight that led to the riots, McCone’s recommendations were described by a national civil rights commission as “aspirin where surgery is required.” The elder Brown misjudged the pulse of the nation again when he vacillated about the death penalty and staunchly supported President Lyndon Johnson’s escalating Vietnam War — both issues that his son would vehemently oppose. His inconsistency toward the domestic and foreign policy crises of the day weakened him, and in 1966 he was defeated for a third term by Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
By then, keen on his own political ambition, Jerry thought his father underestimated the power shift from Northern to Southern California and vowed not to make the same mistake. After graduating from Yale Law School (an education paid for by one of his father’s political benefactors, “Uncle Lou” Lurie, the owner of San Francisco’s luxury Mark Hopkins Hotel) he took a position with a “boutique law firm” in Los Angeles at a time when half of all California voters lived in the booming LA television markets. Jerry embraced the vision of California that the writer Wallace Stegner had famously called “the geography of hope” — a paradox of magnificence and benightedness. “More spectacularly endowed than any other of the 50 states,” Stegner wrote, “… California is a place where you can find whatever you came looking for, and right next to it that which you most hoped to avoid.”
Jerry became his father’s antithesis. He “took for granted his father’s connections and his own privileged position, but he also wanted to escape,” Pawel writes. In short order, the “quick-witted loner” stood in stark contrast to everything his father embodied. “Politics and government blurred seamlessly in an era with few ethical qualms or rules. State staff worked on campaigns. Neither officials nor lobbyists reported dinners, Christmas presents, or gift memberships.” Frank Sinatra gave Brown Sr. golf clubs, and Walt Disney gave the family annual VIP treatment at Disneyland.
Jerry took a hard stand against what he called the “backroom politics” of his father’s era and milieu. He bridled at the quid pro quos epitomized by his father’s sudden post-gubernatorial millionaire status gained at the largesse of an Indonesian military dictator and oil tycoon, even as he benefited from it. Jerry accepted financial help from his dad to buy a house in Laurel Canyon — a hip and cushy LA neighborhood that would be the headquarters of his political surge.
The Watergate scandal of 1973 “resonated with a theme Jerry had hammered” for years, according to Pawel. “The corrupting influence of money and the importance of campaign finance reform” launched him on his political path. Once elected governor, he appointed women and minorities to hundreds of high-level positions. National media outlets were baffled by his huge popularity, despite the fact that “he is not a particularly likable young man” who asks “hostile and irreverent questions,” as the New
York Times Magazine once put it. With characteristic and enduring self-confidence, just six months into his second term as governor, Jerry began a formal path to a disastrous presidential run.
The Browns of California is a sympathetic and fascinating study of a father and son, and an elegant narrative history of a complicated land and its people. — Sally Denton